Tourney upsets, UConn's dominance impact women's hoops

Al Lesar
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Was it parity or just a fluke of an upset?

It’s a question that won't be answered until the end of the next women’s college basketball season.

In a sport that’s almost immune to upsets, chalk went by the wayside in the NCAA Tournament more times than Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw cared to see.

Three of the tournament’s four No. 1 seeds, including the Irish, failed to reach the Final Four in Indianapolis.

Connecticut, Notre Dame’s arch-nemesis dating back to the days of the Big East, was the only top-tier program that avoided a stumble. In fact, the Huskies, who won their fourth straight national title in overwhelming fashion, invoked contention on the other side of the argument: Is that sort of domination good for the game.

“Two (No. 1 seeds reaching the Final Four) would have been really perfect,” McGraw said with a laugh before the Irish banquet Tuesday night. “It was great for women’s basketball to see that parity throughout the tournament, with higher seeds losing in the first or second round.”

In all, there were 16 games in which the lower seed was victorious. The biggest upset was Albany, a 12 seed, tagging No. 5 Florida with a 61-58 first-round defeat.

The Irish ran into an offensive buzzsaw in No. 4 Stanford, in the regional semifinal in Lexington. The Cardinal, who won 90-84 over Notre Dame, lost to No. 7 Washington, 85-76, in the Elite Eight.

That Stanford performance had fluke written all over it. It was the second time the Cardinal scored more than 85 points all season. Seven times they were held to fewer than 60. They scored 36 in a loss to UCLA and 31 while losing to Arizona State.

All McGraw could do, a couple weeks after the fact, is shake her head.

“This year, there were definitely a lot of surprises,” McGraw said. “That’s good for the women’s game.”

Good for the game maybe, but not necessarily the best medicine for coaches who live and die on every possession.

“I always think (that this could be the year of change) because we’ve been that 6 or 7 seed that has (had some upsets),” said McGraw. “Look at (No. 1 seed) South Carolina: They had a number of close games (during the regular season) that went right down to the wire. We were in a lot of games where we easily could have lost. We were vulnerable.

“Baylor (a 60-57 Elite Eight loser to No. 2 Oregon State) surprised me a little bit more. The way they dominated the Big 12, I thought they would have gotten through.”

Then, there’s UConn. Remove coach Geno Auriemma’s personality from the equation, then tussle with the debate: Is a dynasty a positive or a negative for the perception of the game? Some say it detracts from interest in the game, others argue it raises the competitive bar.

“They have been an amazing team,” McGraw said, exuding her best political correctness. “Tennessee probably did something similar (three straight titles, 1996-98). I don’t remember anyone calling that bad for the game (back then).

“People wanted to see more competitive games. That was the only thing missing. You watch the men’s game (Villanova’s stunning last-second upset of North Carolina the night before), that’s what you’re looking for in the Final Four. You want to see competition; a little more parity.”

But McGraw credits UConn with helping her own program establish itself as elite.

“When we were in the Big East, (UConn) set the bar high,” she said. “That helped us get where we are.”

Next year will be another opportunity for Notre Dame to re-establish its dominance.

If McGraw has anything to say about it.

Notre Dame head coach Muffet McGraw says tourney upsets are good for the women's game, just perhaps not for her team. (Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)